What was surgery like in the 1970s?">
APRIL 1, 2013
What was surgery like in the 1970s?

When I first started my residency in the early 1970s, things were remarkably primitive by today's standards.

There were no ultrasound machines. Believe it or not, we would diagnose acute cholecystitis by history and physical examination alone. The only diagnostic tests we had were oral cholecystogram (OCG) and intravenous cholagiogram (IVC). For OCG, pills were taken the night before the test. If the cystic duct was patent, iodinated contrast would appear in the gallbladder and stones could be seen. Non-visualization of the gallbladder meant either the cystic duct was blocked or the pills were not absorbed (presumably due to inflammation, not necessarily of the GB) or the patient forgot to take the pills. The test was useless in acutely presenting patients. IVC was similar except the contrast was given intravenously. The common bile duct could be seen faintly unless the patient was jaundiced. It rarely showed stones in the GB.

There were no CT scans. We had to make the diagnosis of appendicitis by, you guessed it, history and physical examination alone. And since laparoscopic general surgery did not become common in the US until 1990, all appendectomies were done as open procedures.

There were no computers in any clinical departments or nursing units. Everything was on paper. The good news? We had different color paper for different sections of the chart. There was no way to "copy and paste" progress notes. The bad news? Charts often went missing. Handwriting analysis rivaled that of archeologists deciphering hieroglyphics in Egypt. But paper charting was faster to do and easier to "leaf" through.

When submitting a research paper, drafts had to be prepared on a typewriter (an ancient kind of word processor that put the words directly on paper). If you needed to change a paragraph on page 1, the entire manuscript had to be retyped from the beginning. And making slides for presentations involved cameras with 35 mm film, taking the film to be developed and hoping the slides came out OK. Find a typo? Take the picture over and have the film processed again.

Now we use PowerPoint. I'm not totally convinced that it's real progress.

Maybe the biggest change has been the advent of the Internet. In the palm of my hand, I can instantly access huge amounts of information formerly available only in print books and journals. To look up a paper, we had to use Index Medicus, an encyclopedic series of books listing every article by subject in most journals. Of course, there were far fewer journals back then. You had to know the correct heading or keyword to search or you could miss something important. Cross-referencing was not easy because it was in print and there was a different set of volumes for every year. And libraries kept many years' worth of volumes of journals.

Of course, many more changes have occurred. Can any of my older colleagues comment?

Skeptical Scalpel is a recently retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and a surgical sub-specialty and has re-certified in both several times. For the last two years, he has been blogging at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweeting as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 900 page views per day, and he has over 5200 followers on Twitter.


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